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Report: NASA Needs More Astronauts

Though NASA has big plans despite the retirement of their flagship Space Shuttles, a new report from the National Research Council says that the agency has to do more to retain a robust astronaut corps. At the heart of the report is the surprising statistic that since 2000, the number of astronauts has shrunk dramatically from 150 to a mere 61 as of writing.

According to the report, NASA has allowed the number of astronauts to shrink while the agency transitioned from building to operating the International Space Station. The loss of the Space Shuttle also meant that less astronaut training would be needed, since piloting roles would be greatly reduced. However, the report maintains that if NASA is going to operate the ISS, it will need more highly trained personnel to do it.

One key issue of the report is redundancy. Currently, NASA trains its astronauts to be specialists in addition to their basic space-faring skills. However, a smaller group of astronauts means that a small accident could lead to a huge loss in skills for the space agency. Moreover, with the focus on running the space station, a larger, more varied skillset will be required of astronauts. From the NRC release:

Astronauts must now be familiar not only with U.S. equipment aboard the ISS but also with European, Japanese, and Russian station modules and equipment. They must also be proficient at using space station software, conducting extravehicular activities, operating the space station’s robotic arm, and numerous other tasks.

The report also provides a telling look into the strains put on space travelers, and how the job can limit the longevity of astronaut careers. Again, from the NRC press release:

Astronauts’ health, especially over long-duration flights, is another significant factor in determining staffing needs. Health requirements are stringent to prevent the early termination of ISS expeditions out of medical necessity. Thirteen astronauts have become medically ineligible for long-duration missions after being assigned to a mission but before they could actually fly, making clear the need for adequate replacement staff with a range of skills. Also, due to a variety of medical conditions including vision problems, bone loss, physical injuries, or radiation exposure, not all astronauts returning from long-duration missions will re-qualify for ISS missions.

While the report is critical of NASA, it is also an important milestone for the agency as it makes the transition to its new role. With the cancellation of the Constellation program, the focus will be on deep space exploration, technology development, and fostering the growth of commercial space operations in the private sector. Rethinking how the men and women of the astronaut corps will fit into that new role is a difficult, but almost certainly necessary task for the agency.

Hopefully, this rethinking will also include giving me a job. I’m ready, NASA. Just give me time to pack my bags before you blast me off.

(National Research Council via Universe Today, image via NASA)

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